Here we are again at Midsummer, the Summer Solstice or Litha (also called Alban Hefin, Sun Blessing, Gathering Day, or St. John's Day in various cultures). This is the longest day of the year, when the Sun is at its zenith or highest point in the northern hemisphere, seeming to stand still for a brief shining interval before starting down the long slippery slope toward autumn, and beyond to winter.
The word for this week has to be solstice of course, and that word has been around since the thirteenth century at the very least, coming down to us from Middle English and Old French, thence the Latin sōlstitium, a combination of sōl (sun) and -stit/stat - both stit and stat are variant stems of the verb sistere, meaning to make something stand still.Thus, solstice means simply "sun standing still". Of course, it is our little blue planet that is in motion, and not the burning star at the center of our universe. The idea that the sun is in motion is a holdover from the ancient geocentric model (or Ptolemaic system), which held that Earth was the center of all things, and everything else in the cosmos was revolving around it.
Whither has this year flown? It seems as though summer has just arrived, but it's all downhill from now on, at least for six months or so. After today, sunlight hours will wane until Yule (or the Winter Solstice), some time around December 21; then days will wax longer again. Longer nights go along on the cosmic ride during the latter half of the year, and that is something grand to celebrate too. The Old Wild Mother strews starry moonrises by generous handfuls as the year wanes, spectacular star spangled tapestries of night growing longer with the passage of every twenty-four hour interval.
How does one go about celebrating this bright moment demarcating the lighter and darker halves of the year, so eloquently marking the ebb and flow of the seasons? Rites and customs abound, but above all else, one celebrates with fire, and so my notion of midsummer night as a vast cauldron of brightly burning stars is both appropriate, and magical too. The eight festive spokes on the old Wheel of the Year are all associated with fire, but the summer solstice more than any other observance. In earlier times, all Europe was alight on the eve of Midsummer, and ritual bonfires climbed high into the night. The flowers of this day are golden too, and the ancients always included the yellow blossoms of St. John's Wort in the festive circlets that adorned their brows on the eve of Midsummer (Litha).
According to Marian Green, midsummer festivities included morris dancing, ballads, storytelling, pageantry, feasting and torch lit processions after dark. It was thought that prosperity and protection could be ensured by jumping over Midsummer fires, and those who could make such leaps probably did so. Charred embers from the communal Litha fire were charms against injury and bad weather at harvest time, and they were placed around fields and orchards to protect crops and ensure abundant harvests. Other customs included placing embers on the family hearth for protection and decorating thresholds with birch, fennel, St. John's Wort and white lilies.
My own midsummer observance is simple - although I am usually up and about before sunrise, I make it a point to be outside or at a window with my mug of tea to watch old Helios raise his head above the horizon. There's a lighted candle on the old oak table and a small burning wand of Shiseido incense (Plum Blossom) in a pottery bowl nearby. The afternoon holds a few hours of pottering about in flea markets with family and friends and a quiet meal as the sun goes down.
Happy Midsummer, Litha or Summer Solstice! May old Helios light up your day from sunrise to sunset and Lady Moon fill your night with radiant silver.